Rulon Gardner

Rulon Gardner on returning to wrestling training, getting his gold medal back

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NEW YORK — Rulon Gardner said he’s lost a little weight, but there’s still plenty of work ahead. He’d like to live to 80 years old, start a family and get his Olympic gold medal back.

In 2000, Gardner pulled off one of the great upsets in Olympic history, dethroning chiseled Russian Aleksander Karelin in the Greco-Roman super heavyweight wrestling final. Karelin, the three-time defending Olympic champion, hadn’t lost in international competition in 13 years nor given up a point in six.

Gardner since lost the middle toe on his right foot due to frostbite after being stranded in a 2002 snowmobile accident in his native Wyoming. He lived through a motorcycle accident and plane crash.

He went on “The Biggest Loser” at 474 pounds and attempted to lose more than 200 pounds to make weight for the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials at age 40. He reportedly said he got down to 280, missing the Olympic heavyweight limit of 264.5 and gained about 100 pounds back by June 2014, according to the Deseret News.

Since the Olympic trials, Gardner filed for bankrupty and parted with his 2000 Olympic gold medal and 2004 Olympic bronze medal among many other possessions.

On Thursday, Gardner dressed in a suit and tie to cover USA Wrestling’s “Beat the Streets” against Cuba in Times Square for NBCSN. He was stopped for autographs and pictures, unmistakable for he looked bigger than any of the wrestlers competing.

Gardner spoke with OlympicTalk before the meet:

OlympicTalk: You said during the winter you were doing wrestling training again to get back in shape and, last summer, that you would possibly go for the 2016 Olympic trials. How’s that going?

Gardner: I’m still going with, actually, a real good coach from Central High School in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a guy named Drew Severen [the school’s football coach]. I’ve been working out with him, training with him, kind of day-in, day-out, when I have time.

OlympicTalk: How many hours per day?

Gardner: I’m about an hour and a half. If I’m going to try to get back into healthy shape, wrestling shape, you’ve got to spend a good probably three to five hours a day in the wrestling room. Getting that time is hard to do, but if you’re going to get in shape and be a good wrestler, you’ve got to put the time in. Being an Olympic champion, I know I weigh too much now. I’ve got to get healthier and get my weight down.

OlympicTalk: What inspired you to return to wrestling training?

Gardner: I’m 43 years old now, and if I’m going to live to, hopefully, be 80 years old, I’ve got to get healthy. My wife [who has experience as a fitness and weight-loss instructor], she inspired me to work hard and get my weight down. We want to have a family. So, ultimately, for me to be around, and to stay on this earth for long enough, to have a family, I’ve got to get my weight down. So those are probably the biggest inspirations. But then ultimately, to be looked upon by youth wrestlers and that kind of stuff. I need to be a good ambassador of the sport. You’ve got to look the part of a wrestler, and you’ve got to act the part.

OlympicTalk: How realistic is it that you can make it to the Olympic trials?

Gardner: I just took a new position at my job. It’s still a thought out there. I don’t know how realistic it is at this point. At some point, you’ve got to take your career and run with it. If I don’t get on the mat to compete to win, I want to get on the mat to be healthy. At the end of the day, winning the Olympics is something that’s not even in my ideals. But to be healthy enough to make weight for the Olympics is really what I’m after most of all. If I ever did get [my weight] down, and I was able to spend the time and do it, I’d love to go to the Olympic trials. I don’t know if I’d be able to compete and win them, but I’d like to be able to at least be healthy enough to get there.

OlympicTalk: Have you lost weight? What do you weigh now?

Gardner: I’ve lost a little bit of weight, but most of my focus has been with my work. I’m a medical device rep, so I’m in the OR. I’m helping doctors. In a day, I’ll have like four or five surgeries. So you’re getting up at 4 a.m., doing cases all day and then coming back at night, you’re missing wrestling practice. You’ve got to have that discipline. Winter time, being in Wyoming, you don’t ever want to go outside for a run. Summer time, it’s always easier to get out and exercise, and I love being outside. I’ve started doing more of that, more of the running and the jogging. I’ve just got to be healthier and more active.

OlympicTalk: When was the last time you saw or spoke to Karelin?

Gardner: In Beijing [at the 2008 Olympics]. He actually was right in front of me for the whole 20 days of the Olympics [both doing TV work]. So I saw him every day. Just the intimidation factor of him walking in. We did an interview, and it was classic because even though he’s from Russia, he’s so smart, he’s so eloquent in everything he does. He speaks six languages. He was joking with us.

OlympicTalk: Jordan Burroughs is trying to repeat as Olympic champion with strong domestic competition, similar to what you went through in 2004. What do you think of him?

Gardner: I think he’s doing the right thing. He’s looking forward. He’s not looking back. Because once you start looking to see who’s biting at your heels, you start slowing down your acceleration. That’s the one thing about Jordan. I don’t think he’s ever taken the foot off the accelerator.

OlympicTalk: Do you still have your amputated toe?

Gardner: I actually have it in a bottle of formaldehyde. I have that in my refrigerator. People kind of get disgusted. They’re like, why do you have it? You know what, it’s a great reminder of me being irresponsible and foolish and stupid because I made a mistake. I didn’t have my correct gear. I wasn’t prepared to be in the mountains. When I look about being stupid and making bad decisions, I look at my toe, and it reminds me.

OlympicTalk: Are you trying to get your gold medal back?

Gardner: It was actually saved by an individual who actually had helped me out when I was on “The Biggest Loser.” He still has it. If I get another $20,000, I’ll have my gold medal back.

OlympicTalk: How much do you want it?

Gardner: I’m not complete without it. Everybody’s like, oh, the gold medal, it’s his only thing that matters. I have a lot of things that matter to me. I don’t have my Olympic rings and stuff. They sold those, but I don’t care about that stuff. The gold medal, that’s something that was really special to me because of who I beat.

OlympicTalk: You’ve given speeches to schools and kids. What’s the overall message?

Gardner: I talk about seven steps that I utilized in my life to overcome obstacles. I had a learning disability. I wasn’t supposed to go to college. I wasn’t supposed to go and graduate [he did, from Nebraska]. I wasn’t even supposed to go to the Olympics. I finally made the Olympic team in 2000, won the gold medal and accomplished that goal. I’ve continued to learn and gone through adversity. What do you do? You get back up. You have a bad test. You lose an athletic event. These young athletes, you get knocked down. What do you do? You get back up. Life is about obstacles and opportunity. For me, I looked at the match with Karelin as being an opportunity to reach my pinnacle. Some people might have thought about it as an obstacle for success. I thought it was an opportunity, turned it into a positive, won the match and won the Olympics. That’s all about how you perceive life. A lot of kids don’t believe in themselves. That’s the worst thing you can ever do.

Photos: U.S.-Cuba wrestling in Times Square

Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

MORE: Wyomia Tyus’ Olympic protest resonates 52 years later

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NBA participation in Tokyo Olympics could be limited, Adam Silver says

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the Tokyo Olympics’ effect on the league’s schedule planning for 2021 is unclear, but that it’s possible that Olympic participation may be limited.

“There are a lot of great U.S. players, and we may be up against a scenario where the top 15 NBA players aren’t competing in the Olympics, but other great American players are competing,” Silver told Bob Costas on CNN on Tuesday. “Obviously, there are many NBA players who participate in the Olympics from other countries. That’s something we’re going to have to work through. I just say, lastly, these are highly unique and unusual circumstances. I think, just as it is for the Olympic movement, it is for us as well. We’re just going to have to sort of find a way to meld and mesh those two competing considerations.”

Silver said his best guess is that the next NBA season starts in January with a goal of a standard 82-game schedule and playoffs. A schedule has not been released.

In normal NBA seasons that start in late October, the regular season runs to mid-April and the NBA Finals into mid-June.

The Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony is July 23. If an NBA season is pushed back two or three months to a January start, and the schedule is not condensed, the Olympics would start while the NBA playoffs are happening.

The current NBA season is in the conference finals phase in an Orlando-area bubble after a four-month stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a factor in our planning,” Silver said of the Olympics. “It would be tough for us to make a decision in January based on the Olympics happening on schedule when that’s so unclear.”

The NBA has participated in every Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games. Monday was the 29th anniversary of the announcement of the first 10 members of the original Dream Team on an NBC selection show (hosted by Costas).

Before the NBA era, U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams consisted of college players.

MORE: When Michael Jordan lost in wheelchair basketball to Paralympian

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